This novel is perhaps the most controversial to date in the careers of both William Gibson and Bruce Sterling. It was better received outside the science-fiction community than inside. Gibson’s future of virtual spaces in Neuromancer (1984, winner of the Hugo, Nebula, and Philip K. Dick awards), Count Zero (1986), and Mona Lisa Overdrive (1988) took the science-fiction community by storm. Sterling’s black projections for the technological future and his declarations of the new wave of cyberpunk cast him as the enfant terrible of 1980’s and 1990’s science fiction, from the first manifesto in Mirrorshades: The Cyberpunk Anthology (1986) to later novels.
The Difference Engine is unlike Gibson’s and Sterling’s other work in its literary technique as well as in its subject matter and period. Although it focuses on a technological revolution, as does their other work, its pacing is much more leisurely. Its diction is somewhat stilted, with occasional glimmers of characterization that seep into a tour de force of Victorian figures, none of whom is fully drawn in the historical or alternative historical roles. The meat of the novel is not its plot, characters, or setting. According to Gibson, the authors took many of their descriptions from period fiction and journalism. The substance of the novel is instead found in comparisons made constantly by the reader between figures and events in history and in the alternative history presented by the novel. Figures such as Lord Wellington become villains, and Ada and Lord Byron have political prestige. The novel becomes a game of recognition.
There is a fine line between technique used to create atmosphere and technique as an end in itself. The Difference Engine maximizes technique where it minimizes fiction, for the novel is full of political and social clichés familiar to science-fiction readers. The familiar theme is that technology that holds the promise for the relief of human suffering can also increase it. This novel fascinates the reader by foregrounding the basic ambivalence of science fiction as fiction rather than science. It works like a machine to grind out the same answer using variegated mechanisms.